Before I go any further, I need to extrapolate on my headline. Donald Trump, the human, does not have a point on NATO. Trump doesn’t have a point on anything because the only dearly held positions he has center on narcissism, racism, sexism and petty grievances. However, this petty grievance has created an opening for meaningful reform, and we should begin to talk about what NATO should be in the 21st century.
Now, because we live in the choose your own adventure era of news, NATO means different things to different people. To Trump, it’s the very concept of a transatlantic alliance. Abandoning that is insane and exactly what countries like Russia and China want. What he had a point on (again, if he had the capacity to make cogent points), is that NATO—the entire organization with all its quirks—should not be beyond questioning, given that the Soviet Union fell thirty years ago.
We live in a time of mass inequality at home, where thousands of people every year must choose between death and/or bankruptcy thanks to the excesses of late-stage capitalism and a health care system that can only be described as fundamentally evil. We have created a true corporatocracy and taken capitalism to its logical conclusion: the rights of shareholders now supersede democracy. Aiding our allies is an important part of the fight against our shared oligarchs, but we need to free up as much financial room as possible in order to make the changes our broken society desperately needs.
A New Deal-style coalition is going to cost trillions of dollars, and we cannot do it all with tax increases. The military budget is bloated—even the Pentagon found $125 billion of waste (and then buried it)—and any liberal future must include drastic cuts to needless boondoggles like the F-35. NATO is far from a boondoggle, but it’s fair to question how an organization designed for the 20th century which receives billions of dollars per year fits into the digital age. If you were to repackage Trump’s words through a sentient human capable of critical thought, there is something to be said about NATO within all this gibberish.
Set aside the wannabe mafia-don “reimbursement” angle, and Trump's right. NATO requires its members to spend 2% of their GDP as a contingency of membership. Some don't. It's not the biggest problem in the world, but it is a violation of an international agreement. That still means something these days, right?
Forget the trade war nonsense. Literally no one outside of the MAGAmedia bubble thinks that’s anything close to a good idea. Also, effing duh NATO benefits Europe more than the U.S.—that’s the entire point of its existence. Plus, I know this is shocking, Trump is factually wrong about the numbers. Here is a pie chart I put together of NATO’s Common-Funded Budget. We’re paying just a little less than a quarter of it for 2018 through 2019.
However, that graph only shows part of the picture. Here is what NATO defense expenditures have looked like relative to the countries’ GDP.
So taking a page from the media’s “Fire and Fury Rings True Despite It Not Being True” playbook, Trump has a point. We are paying more than twice as much on a percentage basis as any other European nation (besides Germany), to aid Europe’s security—and also on a percentage basis of our own GDP, we contribute more to NATO’s budget than any European nation. Yet, as a bloc, Europe has a larger economy than the United States, by GDP. Europe is not a war-torn continent anymore, and so the nature of the agreement must be updated to reflect the realities of our age. NATO’s last 10-year agreement in 2010 began to embark down that path, particularly with declarations like this one:
It recommits the alliance to crisis-prevention and crisis management operations and to working more closely with international partners including the United Nations and the European Union.
So while NATO’s last 10-year mission statement made serious progress towards a more peaceful future, the problem remains a familiar one. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us of the unchecked, awesome power of the growing military industrial complex in his final address to the nation. NATO is part of that sprawl. If the Pentagon can stumble upon $125 billion in waste, I’d be willing to bet that there’s plenty of fat to trim from NATO’s budget.
This isn’t to say that Trump is right when he says that NATO is obsolete. Far from it. NATO was created to insulate post-war Europe from outside threats. It was in the United States’ best interests to guarantee the security of its allies while they rebuilt a continent ravaged by two world wars. The U.S.S.R. was looming, and through their actions, they made it clear that they viewed Eastern Europe (at least) as sovereign Soviet territory. NATO is a great success, as present-day Europe proves (despite its sizeable warts).
Putin’s Russia is clearly a threat on the rise, and so this is not a column arguing in favor of abandoning our friends who are within the Kremlin’s clutches. Small countries like Estonia still need significant military aid on their eastern border in order to maintain their sovereignty, but the challenge to broader Europe has evolved while the nuclear threat has decreased.
NATO’s last significant move was unseating Muammar Gaddafi in the oil-rich African country of Libya (yet they do not take similar actions when it comes to the substantially less oil-rich Syria, backed by Russia and Iran). Like we saw in Iraq, the power vacuum has been filled by a wave of violence—with some warlords becoming more brutal than the former dictator. NATO helped create a new safe haven for ISIS across the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s hard to call that operation an overall success relative to Europe’s security. Not to mention, the lives we saved in the short-term as justification for the invasion have more than been repaid in the wake of our bombing raids and subsequent abandonment of the country. The problem with NATO, like much of American foreign policy, is that when you mostly have hammers to use, everything looks like a nail.
The threat emanating from the Kremlin is far more present online than in physical reality (for now). Their goal is to radicalize folks from afar so they are greeted as liberators, and not invaders. This is the story of Crimea (albeit far more complicated, given that many Crimeans have historically identified with Russia and not Ukraine—which created fertile ground for Putin to play in). The security we should be providing Europe must be tilted towards combating espionage and poverty rather than just blowing stuff up. In short, sovereignty of elections, not sovereignty of borders, should be the priority. The problem is, that requires a lot of non-military aid, and that makes defense contractors sad—and unfortunately, not making defense contractors sad is the chief priority of the United States federal government.
And yes, getting rid of NATO is Putin’s chief European goal, but NATO is a stand-in for Putin’s real problem: America supporting our allies in Europe. As is, NATO is a 20th century relic that should either be modernized or replaced with a transatlantic alliance far more geared to the task at hand. That means decreasing the number of American bombs, bullets and missiles shipped across the Atlantic, and dramatically collaborating on our collective soft power in order to aid the European populace—all while lending our technical acumen to the gargantuan task of election meddling (that the West had plenty of experience in before they became its victims).
Trump’s trade war is a gigantic blow to that stated effort, as one of the best ways to ensure that countries in Eastern Europe avoid being co-opted by the Kremlin is to integrate their economies with the West. By pulling back from the continent, Trump is creating a vacuum for bad actors like Putin to step into. This is why I feel the need to continually point out that the overall argument that Trump makes is not the one I’m trying to make. President Mad Online isn’t mentally capable of making a thoughtful point, but through the chaos that he whips up through his madness, Trump creates opportunities to question longstanding traditions that seemed beyond reproach before (like 11 Supreme Court justices). The essential concept of NATO is still very much needed in a world with an emboldened Kremlin and a disintegrating post-World War II order, but the challenge in Europe requires more nuance and humanitarian aid than what’s brought to the table by what is effectively America’s 2nd army.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.